Cancun conference shows an evolving response to climate change

Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 8:46 PM

IN INTERNATIONAL diplomacy, participants sometimes view even small steps as great accomplishments. See, for example, the buzz in global-warming circles around the U.N. climate-change conference in Cancun, which wrapped up over the weekend.

Hopes for a wide-ranging and legally binding climate-change treaty any time soon died last December at a much-anticipated conference in Copenhagen. A year later in Cancun, ambitions were tamped down. Some of the toughest questions, such as about the future of the Kyoto Protocol, were hardly addressed. The Cancun conference became more about rescuing the complex international climate negotiation framework from irrelevancy or even collapse.

It seems to have done so - by beginning to establish international institutions that will be necessary for a coherent global response to climate change, however long that takes to organize: a "Green Fund" to help developing countries adapt to climate change and remove carbon from their economies; critical mechanisms to monitor and verify nations' emissions-cutting efforts; a program to fight deforestation. U.S. representatives can claim some victories on monitoring and verification, on the structure of the Green Fund and on cajoling developing nations such as China to subject their emissions promises to standards similar to those that apply to rich nations.

Even when fully elaborated, though, these responses will be no more than vessels into which countries must put money and actions, and that's far from guaranteed. On deforestation, for example, the negotiators couldn't resolve critical questions about how to pay for the effort. They pushed many difficult decisions to the next big climate conclave next year in South Africa. The U.N. negotiating framework survived, but with much larger challenges ahead.

Given the global nature of climate change, a well-designed, binding, international agreement would allow countries to exploit the most efficient opportunities to cut carbon. But the prospect seems distant. It surely won't happen until the United States tackles its own carbon emissions, preferably with legislation. But that is looking unlikely for the moment, too.

Under those circumstances, Cancun established an important principle: Progress doesn't have to be all or nothing, a binding international treaty or bust. That point should resonate, inside the U.N. process and outside it. The Group of 20, for example, has agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies; French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who leads the G20 in 2011, says he will press the group to make the fight against global warming a priority. The Montreal Protocol, which nearly every country signed to eliminate ozone-killing air pollution, is arguably the most successful international environmental agreement ever. Its parties could link its work on chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons, both potent greenhouse gases, to the anti-warming effort. Other multilateral organizations, such as the Arctic Council, are considering ways to reduce so-called black carbon, which refers to short-lived but powerful contributors to global warming. And the two largest emitters, America and China, should keep climate change high on the bilateral agenda.

"By helping to diversify the portfolio of international climate change efforts," argues the Pew Center on Global Climate Change's Elliot Diringer, efforts outside the U.N. process "would serve to reduce the risk of policy failure."

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